Despite the fact that All American Drive-In has but one location, the burgers they serve will be instantly familiar to millions, perhaps even billions of people.
You see the three burgers on offer at this timeless little drive-in in exotic Massapequa, New York, are virtually identical to McDonald's early menu. Before Big Macs and breakfast burritos, before other chains started offering to do things your way, All American was churning out burgers "their way"--pickles, ketchup, finely diced onions--at a dizzying rate to the swarms of hungry suburbanites that flock here.
You want choice? OK, you can order your burgers with or without cheese.
I often wonder if one can be nostalgic for an era that one never lived in. Is there such a word in the English language? I certainly get the feeling of nostalgia when I dine at All American. The diminutive portion sizes, the immediacy of service, the taste of the food itself all evoke in me a bygone era, unfettered by the notions of super-sizing and conversely by any need to pay lip service to a balanced diet. There is nothing remotely green on any of the burgers here, the closest vegetable aside from the onion would be, using the Ronald Reagan nutritional standard, the ketchup that is de riguer.
The structure that houses All American is the original, dating to 1963, and the business has remained in the hands of the Vultaggio family since its inception. The edifice bears all the hallmarks of the mid-century optimism and belief in American exceptionalism that was the zeitgeist of the era. The gleaming metal framework with its massive windows and nonparallel sides (the entire building is tapered) are reflective of the modernistic space age aesthetic of the 1960s.
The building is not the only thing that seems stuck in time. The menu appears to have changed little, although I am sure the prices have gone up somewhat in the last 45 years. Said menu is simple and concise: hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and quarter-pounders, all with or without cheese.
You can double up on the hamburger or cheeseburger to make a Double Header or a Double Double. The regular burgers are served on pillow soft white buns that are absolutely delectable and taste vibrant and fresh. Indeed, the dusting of white flour that they leave on your fingers is an indication of just how fresh they are. The quarter-pounder is served on a larger, sesame seed bun that is also excellent, although I prefer the understated simplicity of the regular bun.
The cheeseburger is admittedly svelte, the patty, which probably does not tip the scales at much over two ounces, has a circumference that is too small for the bun, inevitably leaving one a crescent shaped rind of bread; I generally discard them as I would a rib bone or pizza crust.
Despite the circumferential inequity between beef and bun, I don't object that much to the ratio from a height perspective. And although the Double Double (above) is better all around in terms of providing a good ratio, I appreciate the cheeseburger for its own aesthetic contribution. The finely chopped onions, tart pickle that wilts delightfully from the heat yet still maintains some snap, gooey cheese, and ketchup all serve to moisten the lean but fresh-ground and flavorful patty.
The quarter-pounder seems to be a newer addition, given that it is not listed with the rest of the sandwiches but rather is advertised on two additional signs that flank the main (and by the looks of things, original) menu board. The quarter-pounder is much thicker than even a Double Double and comes served the pickles, onion, and ketchup that are standard here. I recommend you order the quarter-pounder with cheese, as the patty is cooked all the way through and can get a bit dry.
I like my burgers rare, but that is not an option here; this is true fast food, and your burger is not cooked for you but rather in anticipation of you ordering it. The freshness of the product, however, is all but guaranteed because of the dizzying volume that All American contends with. The place has been packed every time I've been. Despite this, the line moves at what is a breakneck speed by food-service standards, an impressive feat considering that production is not automated.
HUMAN-POWERED BURGER JOINT
The densely packed cadre of workers behind the large glass partition operate like a well-oiled machine churning out burgers, fries, and shakes with controlled yet chaotic efficiency. While the fast food chains have done their best to reduce production of food to the simplest automated procedure, the food at All American is actually cooked by people. A human flips your burger, not some hydraulically assisted computer-controlled machine.
Getting back to the quarter-pounder, it is a hefty sandwich and despite being somewhat flattened when wrapped in the custom sleeves, it remains plump and juicy. The beef-to-bun ratio is just about perfect, as are the proportions of the condiments, which only complement and never obscure the beef itself.
I also love the fries at All Amercian. They only come in one relatively small size, and they are fabulously crisp and golden. It might seem obvious to say that they actually taste like potatoes, but so many fries do not, taking on the taste of the oil they are fried in or surrendering all flavor to the deep freezer. The shakes are also decent--not the thickest in the world but still reasonably solid and with very pure flavors.
I can imagine that there are numerous Massapequans for whom graduating from cheeseburger to Double Double to quarter-pounder with cheese is a right of passage, denoting the journey from child to man--a burger mitzvah, if you will.
There is a sense of continuity and of real history here that one simply does not get at a fast food chain. While the labor at All American is obviously streamlined, it retains an artisanal qualitynonetheless. The freshness of the ingredients aside, the restaurant feels as if it is an integral part of life in Massapequa, and indeed it must be considered ubiquitous by many a resident of the sleepy suburban town.
And while local celebrities are known to frequent the establishment, such as comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the Baldwin brothers, and perhaps most appropriately revivalist rocker Brian Setzer, by and large the punters who line up at All American are the salt of the earth types from the working and lower-middle classes.
The modern world has risen up around All American--a strip mall with the obligatory Starbucks is open across the street--but it still manages to thrive, all the while steadfastly sticking to its roots and turning out a world-class burger "their way."
Go, All American!
ALL AMERICAN DRIVE-IN
4286 Merrick Road, Massapequa NY 11758